LINGUIST List 11.316

Wed Feb 16 2000

Sum: English Imperatives with Overt "You"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Kevin R. Gregg, Summary: English imperatives with overt 'You' (11-265)

Message 1: Summary: English imperatives with overt 'You' (11-265)

Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2000 15:40:50 +0900
From: Kevin R. Gregg <>
Subject: Summary: English imperatives with overt 'You' (11-265)

My query about negative imperatives with overt 'you' (*You don't kick that
pigeon!) brought me over 30 replies; my thanks to
Mahani Aljunied 
Glynis Baguley
Paul Boersma
Ruth M. Brend
Mike Cahill
Daniel Collins
Karen Courtenay
Peter T. Daniels
Damon Allen Davison
Lance Eccles
Stephanie Gelderloos
Frank Y. Gladney
John Hellermann
Earl Herrick
Richard S. Kaminski
Fiona Macarthur Purdon
Betsy McCall
Philip McGuire
Elizabeth McKeown
Gerald B. Mathias
Mike Maxwell
Rebecca Larche Moreton
Chad D. Nilep
Amanda Owen
Elizabeth J. Pyatt
Karl Reinhardt
Kevin Rottet
Geoffrey Sampson
Bonnie D. Schwartz, falsely hight Durham Linguistics
Marilyn Silva
Michael Swan
J. Taylor

 The replies show a good deal of agreement: aside from 2 tentative
judgments, we all agreed that imperatives of the form 'You don't V' are
unacceptable. Most respondents also pointed out, while kindly refraining
from remarking that I had overlooked the obvious, that subject-aux
inversion yields a perfectly acceptable imperative: Don't you kick that
pigeon! vs. *You don't kick that pigeon!
 Unfortunately, the problem remains of why inversion is (seemingly)
necessary. One person suggested that the inverted imperative can be
distinguished from a yes/no question by intonation, whereas the uninverted
form cannot be so distinguished from a declarative. However, I would think
that, say, 'You don't open your mouth!', in context, wouldn't raise any
problem of interpretation. 
 A number of respondents suggested that the 'you' in these negative
imperatives is actually a vocative rather than a subject. The catch here
seems to me to be that vocatives usually have their own intonation contour:
 John / come over here. But the 'you' in an inverted negative imperative
typically doesn't; and on the other hand, the 'you' in an affirmative
imperative usually does! (YOU be quiet! ??You be QUIET! DON'T you kick
that pigeon! ?? Don't YOU kick that pigeon!)
 I had the definite sense from the responses that most of us felt
hampered by the fact that we virtually never *use* overt 'you' in
imperatives of any kind, and that thus our intuitions were not that
robust--aside, as I said, from the general agreement that *You don't V! If
I might refer to the recent discussion on Newmeyer's book, and an opinion I
offered in that discussion, this might be a nice example of where we really
need a theory to settle the question. 

Kevin R. Gregg
Momoyama Gakuin University
(St. Andrew's University)
1-1 Manabino, Izumi
Osaka 594-1198 Japan 0725-54-3131 (ext. 3622)
fax. 0725-54-3202
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